Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Big-Tent Peace

Even though ACN is a relatively small organization (though with big ambitions!), I am struck by the many different reasons people have for valuing peace and nonviolence. I’m sure this is true more generally. What do you think of when you think about nonviolence and peace? Do you think about the “classic” 20th century theorists and practitioners such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi? Maybe you think about the anti-war movement in the US in the 1960s. Perhaps you think about local or global matters of justice and rights. Do peace and nonviolence resonate with you as religious convictions?

The fact is that there are a lot of different associations that we draw. ACN, like many similar organizations, is a “big tent.” We recognize shared concerns and work together on common projects even though many of us probably would begin to part ways at some level if we doggedly pursue questions like: What is your vision of peace? How do we get there?

For example, I think about the question of the extent and possible limits of nonviolence. Based on her research, Erica Chenoweth found that nonviolent political movements are statistically much more successful than violent ones. Nonviolence can be strategic in achieving political goals. But what about when it fails? Are the political goals so overriding that this is the point at which we take up arms? Or is nonviolence “deeper” than this—like an article of faith that we stick to no matter what? The Civil Rights movement witnessed groups of both attitudes.

Or take another example. Do peace and nonviolence commit a person to a place on the left-right political spectrum? Many people assume that peace is “liberal,” and not without some good historical reasons. “Peace” here is saying more than “peace,” though; it is shorthand for a particular social and political vision on the left. At the same time, leftist political movements can produce just as much violence as rightist ones. One thinks about Che Guevara, for example.

In big-tent peace, there are also a variety of ways of talking about rights and justice (or social justice) in relation to peace and nonviolence. While violence often erupts where there is (economic, racial, and other) injustice, is the solution justice or peace? If it is justice, then what role does nonviolence play, if any? If it is peace, then what kind of vision of peace is at work that is able to endure injustice?

Since the mid-20th Century, peace movements have often appealed to human rights. The 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the most prominent example, and draws a lot on Christian, primarily Catholic, ways of discussing human dignity and equality. Discussing “natural rights” in his book After Virtue, philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre said that “there are no such rights, and belief in them is one with belief in witches and unicorns.”

Others like John Gray have wondered about the purported universality of these rights. They cannot be universal in the sense of everyone agreeing with them. Some articles, such as number 26 that specifies that “elementary education shall be compulsory,” are far too culturally specific to reflect some kind of universal consensus. What are we to make of a political body (the UN) that makes “universal” declarations? Is it disguising its own particular (Lockean if not theological in some way) commitments when it does so? Is there a threat of compulsion? If so, what is the real relationship between universal human rights and violence? One notices that, especially in the last half-century, human rights violations have often been the stated reasons for military interventions.

There is a lot of room within the big tent. Peace and nonviolence don’t have a single look. I’m reminded that many of the fiercest critics of war that I have met are veterans. We have a tent with hippies, veterans, and lots of other folks besides! Let’s work to notice where we differ. And let's try not to mistake the appearance of consensus with peace.

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